On July 15, Professor David A. Wilson of University of Toronto visited the SALON Team as a special guest in our summer outdoor theatre experience, In Sir John A’s Footsteps. Afterwards, SALON actor, Jesse MacMillan sat down with the Ph.D. to discuss their mutual interest, Irish Father of Confederation, Thomas D’Arcy McGee. In Part 1 of this two-part interview, Wilson shares how he became fascinated with D’Arcy McGee, and why.
Check out Part 1 HERE
In PART 2, Dr. Wilson explains how he drew artifacts together to discover Thomas D’Arcy McGee’s personality. In this blog, we also find out what Wilson thinks about SALON Theatre and the collision of history and art.
MacMillan: You can get good glimpse, I found into his brain by reading his poetry.
Wilson: And his speeches. This is where I go to—his speeches—and his sense of humour. I say in the intro to Volume II (or maybe it’s Volume I), that the hardest thing to get at is McGee’s sense of humour, because it’s situational humour. It’s not punch line humour (or occassionally it is). It’s embedded in situations, and it’s satirical humour that can only be fully appreciated if you have a detailed knowledge of the context. If you try to explain a joke, you kill it, so I say in the book…there is only one way you can get [his humour], and it’s to go directly to his speeches, and read them.
He had a very self-deprecating sense of humour…and a very wry sense of humour that came across in his letters… No matter what political position he was taking, he was always good company. I think what one person described as “a sparkling whit” of D’Arcy McGee largely accounts for that.
MacMillan: What I found impressive while reading his speeches was how he would have an idea that he would start talking about, and then he would go on and on, elaborating and pulling from different sources, and some how, within the same super long sentence, those ridiculously long sentences, would tie it up. I would read it and go: Did he just say that…in the room?!
Wilson: There’s a brilliant description by Sanford Fleming, from 1862, He’s in St Laurence Hall in Toronto waiting for McGee to give a speech, and the train is late coming in from Montreal. So the audience is hanging about and then Sanford Fleming (as he describes in a letter to a friend many years latter after McGee’s assassination), this man came in who was shabbily dressed, and he came onto the stage, and Sanford Fleming thought, Oh, it’s a porter or somebody telling us that McGee won’t be coming, and then this man started to talk and it was instantly clear it was D’Arcy McGee, and when he spoke, McGee’s face was transformed and he held the room completely, with this magnetic personality.
Somethinge else… that’s interesting, especially to someone that’s playing the part of D’Arcy McGee, is that…he studied oratory very carefully indeed. His oratorical style was very different from that of most people. Most people had to project, and of course they did because there were no microphones. So it was a very bombastic public style of oratory. But McGee didn’t do that. McGee was almost…unique in that he drew people in. He had great rhythmic variation in his talks, and he could shift moods very quickly…but he was not a shouter or a screamer. He was a conversationalist. He’d hush the room and speak in a conversational tone with no [written] notes. These speeches that he gave, which are quoting sources left, right and centre, and generally quoting them accurately, he did with no notes. So he had a phenomenal memory as well.
MacMillan: I play D’Arcy McGee across Canada on a train, and when I’m talking to people, I’m a pretty friendly person. It’s from the time that they didn’t smile in photos, so it’s hard to get that humour, but I read things and he’s the wild person in the room.
Wilson: Something else that I feel is well worth keeping in mind is that he hated stage Irish stuff. Absolutely hated it. On one occasion, in Montreal, he was invited by the Mechanics Institute…to give a talk. He was preceded by a comedian, who was doing the drunken paddy stuff. Although McGee was a heavy drinker (there’s a bit of irony here), McGee regarded [the comedian’s performance] as an insult to the Irish people. On stage, he berated the organizers for allowing such a thing to happen on stage. So the notion of McGee as a leprechaun he would have found repulsive—which is ironic because sometimes he’s portrayed in that way. There’s a series of painting of McGee, by a very well known Toronto artists from the mid 20th century and they are all stereotypical Irish pictures of McGee. He would not have enjoyed those paintings any more than William Butler Yates would have enjoyed jazz versions of his own poetry.
McMillan: He wrote about a dozen books, and two of them were fiction, have you read them? Or do you know what they’re about?
Wilson: The first book he wrote, Eva Macdonald, was a work of fiction, and he wrote it when he was 17. Perhaps no more need be said. It is a dreadful piece of work— although no less interesting for that. It was situated in the Antrim Coast. Some people I met in Ireland did a lot of genealogical research, and they found out that McGee, before the age of 8, lived up on the Antrim Coast road because his father was in the customs service. This was right by the sea, and there was a customs house right by Garron Point. The description of the scenery and the characters was probably drawn on some of the people he remembered when he was 5-7 years old there.
The second book, had no title, but [McGee] described it to Charles Tupper and an Irish American novel based on his experiences in the United States as a young man in the 1840s, before the famine. I searched long and hard for that manuscript, and spoke to some of the most knowledgeable people in the book world in Britain and Ireland and North America, and nobody has ever found it. I’ve spoken to McGee’s descendants, some of whom I’m on very good terms with, and no idea what happened to an Irish American Tale.
MacMillan: It’ll be the one piece…
Wilson: I hope his fiction improved over the course of his life. It probably did.
MacMillan: One last quick question. We’ve toyed around with the idea in his murder case, that Patrick James Whalen was the murder. [You and I] both feel that maybe there was some tampering with that. Now in a murder case, the last person to see the victim is usually the first suspect. And was that John A. Macdonald?
Wilson: No, the last person to see McGee before the person(s) who shot him (whether he was shot by one or two people, we don’t know), was a guy called Robert McFarland who was a fellow MP. They were sharing a cigar. Also John Buckley, who was a suspect, and two other people. McFarland and Buckley and the others continued to walk southwards, McGee pealed off down Spark Street.
John Buckley called out to McGee, “Good Night, Mr. McGee.” [McGee] replied “Good Morning! It’s morning now.” Those were the last words he spoke.
MacMillan: They had their story, and they got to walk off.
Wilson: Yes. I followed up on that one. They seem like the most obvious suspects, but there’s no reason why Robert McFarland would ever have done that, and he was never under suspicion. Both John Buckley and John A. Macdonald’s coachman [Patrick Buckley] [were] suspects.
An excellent account of McGee’s assassination by Dr. Wilson can be found in Thomas D’Arcy McGee Volume I
At SALON, we take the relationship between art and history seriously. Our Guest Hosts are all leaders and experts in their respective fields. Their expertise is valuable to share with the audiences of In Sir John A’s Footsteps, but they are also valuable sources for the SALON team to make sure that what we do is both entertaining and educational.
MacMillan: So you’ve now seen a lot of SALON’s work, you’ve watched some videos and you saw our show. I wouldn’t mind getting some more of your thoughts on what we’re doing.
Wilson: I’m not kidding when I say I think you’re all extraordinarily talented and you’re great singers and great musicians. You convey issues, themes in mid-late 19th century Canadian politics/history very effectively. And street theatre can be very hokey, but this is not. I like the use of humour, I like the playfulness—the joie de vivre—that the cast has.
I really had no idea what to expect. As I was watching the first time, I was thinking to myself: What would John A. Macdonald have thought of this? What would George Brown have thought of this? Well, George Brown didn’t have much of a sense of humour, so who knows. What would McGee have thought? What would Hugh Allen have thought of this? I think they would have been amused to see themselves present in that way. I don’t think they would have been offended or have said, “It wasn’t like that.” I think they would have taken…as theatre.
I mean, let’s face it, Macdonald didn’t suddenly arrive in Charlottetown and say, “Hey guys! I’m here. Let’s talk about Confederation.” It was George Brown who actually got Confederation going. John A. Macdonald was opposed to it in the 60’s, he was one of the three people who voted against confederation in 1864 before he realized which way the cookie was going to crumble, and then changed his mind. Things like that, you can’t really get into your show…but it doesn’t matter because it framed in this humourous way so you know it’s not trying to replicate exactly what happened. It’s giving you broad brush strokes and it’s giving you something that is intrinsically interesting to the point at which, anyone who’s willing to learn more about it can do so. And there will be quite a few people who will [be interested in learning more] as a result of what you’re doing. So more power to you, is what I say. Keep up the good work.
MacMillan: We like to think that if we can spark a conversation. One of our mandates is to engage people to then go in and learn more. We offer it in the most accessible way and the fun way. We found that the more we dug into the real facts, and trying to put a lot of information in… it becomes too silly. We imagine, if we were hired to do a show about Steven Harper, imagine if we were able to do it in this way. He’d love it if he came and saw a show where were lampooning him a little bit.
Wilson: Actually he might not, but…
MacMillan: Yeah, we’d probably get arrested for terrorism and deported. But yeah…Last quick question, what do you think our next big project should be?
Wilson: I mentioned a couple of ideas that I think would be great. One with some local colour: the story of Ogle Gowan. Talk about a villain of the peace. But a villain who does wind up, because of his careerism I think, breaking with the more extreme elements in the Orange Order. Careerism can have its good side. If you have to choose between someone who was corrupt and someone who is ideologically pure, and hell-bent on changing things, maybe you want the corrupt person.
And I do think the story of the infiltration of the Fenian Brotherhood is amazing untold story, [especially] I think, given the interest people have now in security versus liberty and the dangers of internal subversion, connected with external force. In a different way, the secret police force that Macdonald, McGee and the others grappled with in the 1860s, and the story of the agents themselves in the field is fascinating: their arguments, their backbiting, their successes, their failures, their duplicity, their manipulation and lies. These are people who are practitioners of the art of deception, so it’s not just the Fenians they deceived. They may deceive the women they’re with, or they may deceive their bosses or their colleagues. To me, the story of Charles Clark, this particular one, is completely unknown would be a great thing to do. But there are so many things in Canadian History that can be mined.
Check out Part 1 HERE
Interview by Jesse MacMillan
Transcribed by Allison Ferry
Blog written by Allison Ferry
On July 15, Professor David A. Wilson of University of Toronto visited the SALON Team as a special guest in our summer outdoor theatre experience, In Sir John A’s Footsteps. Afterwards, SALON actor, Jesse MacMillan sat down with the Ph.D. to discuss their mutual interest, Irish Father of Confederation, Thomas D’Arcy McGee.
Although not Wilson’s original interest while finishing his graduate studies, the Irish Rebel-turned-Nation-Builder caught his attention during an unexpected Celtic Studies conference. Since that day in the 1970s, David Wilson has become one of the leading experts on McGee, having published two volumes and countless articles. For actor MacMillan, who regularly portrays D’Arcy McGee in SALON productions, the opportunity to pick Wilson’s brain on facts and stories was an invaluable opportunity. In Part 1 of this two-part interview, find out how Wilson became fascinated with D’Arcy McGee, and why.
Check out Part 2 HERE
MacMillan: I had to learn…so that when I was out on the streets as McGee, people would drill me. I always knew that if someone asked me, I was usually able to respond. But as I got to know his story, I thought it was one of the most interesting ones of the Fathers of Confederation.
I wonder why you decided to pick McGee as a figure [to study].
Wilson: I first heard of McGee just before my PhD Comprehensive Exams. I was at Queens, but I wasn’t doing Canadian History, I was doing Anglo-American history, late 18th, early 19th century. I had no knowledge of Canadian History whatsoever. I didn’t know which provinces signed Confederation, you know.
I went down to Toronto just to clear my head before the [Comprehensive] exams and there was a big conference put on by the new Celtic Studies program at the University of Toronto, called Canada and the Celtic Consciousness…This man, McGee kept coming up…He was being used by the conference organizers as the man who single handedly saved Canada from Fenianism, and the man who single handedly brought the Celts, and the French together, and who actually found a common Celtic consciousness for Canada: French, Irish and Scots. It was a very hagiographical romantic image of McGee. But I was very interested in the use of McGee as this mythic symbol. So that was one side: The Myth of McGee.
And then, the Irish politician, who I by now realized, was a latter day version of Thomas D’Arcy McGee—someone who is uncannily similar to D’Arcy McGee in his views, a man by the name of Conor Cruise O’Brien. He gave a speech at that conference, in which he attacked revolutionary Irish Nationalism. He had taken on the provisional IRA in the same way that D’arcy McGee had taken on the Fenians over a century earlier. In the course of a memorable and brilliant speech…he demolished some of the central myths of romantic revolutionary Irish Nationalism. He said at the end of the talk that the greatest Irish Canadian was Thomas D’Arcy McGee. And then, he proposed a toast with water, and said that a scholarly biography of Thomas D’arcy McGee was long overdue. That was 1978, and I thought, File that one away, Wilson. You never know.
Two decades had passed before Wilson turned back to McGee. In the meantime, he continued his focus on American History.
Wilson: In 2000, I finished another book, and I thought…Irish Canadian history should be explored. I remembered Conor Cruise O’Brien’s remarks. But then I found out, a man by the name of Robin Burns, who was at Bishop’s University had written a Ph.D. on McGee…It was a very scholarly, solid, brilliantly researched piece of work. I just didn’t find the character very appealing. It had come out in 1976. He’s been sitting on it for twenty-six years, and I thought, if he’s going to publish this, there’s no room for me to write a biography on McGee. And then I thought…in twenty-four years, he’s not published it by now; he’s probably not going to do it.
In fact, the first biography of McGee that I read, when I was thinking about this project, was by Isabel Skeltonwho was here in Kingston, and it was published in 1925. After reading the biography, I thought I would abandon the project because I didn’t like McGee very much and I didn’t find him particularly interesting. I think that was Isabel Skelton’s D’Arcy McGee.
It was [only] going to be a 200-page book. I got more and more drawn into McGee and his world.
By the time David had completed his first volume on Thomas D’Arcy McGee—a piece of literature exploring McGee’s relationship to Ireland and the Fenians—he had already created a list of other themes that he realized were worth exploration.
Wilson: To my surprise, I found that McGee and Rep by Pop [aka. Representation by Population], and McGee on Separate schools, the separate schools issue was absolutely fascinating. It’s still with us. Separate schools for Muslims, and the debates around that. Do separate schools mean less acculturation and assimilation or more assimilation and acculturation? I learned a lot of the debates had contemporary resonance.
 Isabel (Murphy) Skelton, The Life of Thomas D’Arcy McGee (Gardenvale, N.Y., 1925).
David Wilson had officially been hooked by the enigmatic figure of Thomas D’Arcy McGee. Captivated by the many seeming contradictions of McGee, Wilson turned to the archives in order to unpack the Irish Father of Confederation’s story.
Wilson: The McGee I discovered when I went to the primary sources was really… fascinating—and vibrant and alive, and also full of contradictions. [Reading] newspapers from 1840s and 1850s and 1860s, you find three or four different McGees.
You find McGee, the revolutionary, the man who proudly proclaimed himself to be a traitor to the British crown. You find the McGee who was a moral force Reformer, who rejected revolution. You find the McGee who believed that Canada…could, should, and would be, annexed to the United States. You find the McGee who was a fervent Catholic, who rejected secular politics and believed that the Catholic religion should define—not just shape, but define—politics. And you find McGee, the liberal who compromised, who found accommodation, and who…struggled towards the middle way.
At the same time, even as he struggled to maintain the middle way, there were still extreme elements in his personality; and they came out paradoxically in the service of moderation. To describe him, as I do in Volume II, as an extreme moderate is clearly a paradox—an oxymoron really: an extreme moderate.
Wilson: What I mean by [extreme moderate] is that when he was confronted with the Fenians, and indeed the Orange Order…he took an extreme position against the Orange Order, and extreme position against the Fenians… [McGee] believed [both factions] could, together, tear this country apart and turn it into a North American version of Ireland, with wide and deep ethno and religious tensions—fissures if you like…[McGee did this] all this in the service of moderation and nation building. And [he did it in the service of] building a society in which Moderates and accommodation and kindly feelings would prevail. He believed strongly actually in kindly feelings, personal goodwill, [as well as in] the importance of it in politics and in social interactions.[McGee] realized after a few years in Canada that the Orange Order wasn’t monolithic, that there were moderate elements, that there were “nominal” Orange Men. John A. Macdonald is a classic example of a nominal Orange Man. But there were also extreme, bigoted Orange Men. He was prepared to compromise and accommodate with moderate Orange Men.
When it came to the Fenians, he felt that there was, by definition, no moderate component to them. They were revolutionary republicans who, in his view, had adopted a new kind of religion, and one which in its sense of moral absolutism, or if you like, absolute certainty, was intolerant of anything that challenged it, and extremely dangerous. And so he never compromised with Fenianism.
Wilson: The more I read on McGee and Confederation, particularly when I started reading the anti-confederation arguments, [the more] I found them very persuasive. I don’t know what position I would have taken at the time, but there were some very good arguments against confederation. [It was interesting] to see how McGee’s Canadian Nationalism fitted (because it does fit) with his intense hostility toward Fenianism…It drew on earlier form of Nationalism he’d expressed in Ireland in his teens.
I kept saying, there’s actually some consistency here, because the kind of nationalism that he embraced for Ireland in his teens has been transposed to Canada and transmuted…through [his] experiences in America, his experiences in Ireland, his experiences with Catholicism, and his experiences with reality on the ground in Canada. But the basic principles were constant.
MacMillan: You said in the bios [of McGee] that his character didn’t pop out. How did you go about pulling out the character that you knew was there?
Wilson: It’s a very good question because there are hardly any personal papers; and that tells its own story as well. We know next to nothing about his relationship with his wife except for one very harrowing letter she writes about her husband’s drinking, and then she breaks off the letter because he’s just come in now and he’s worse than ever. You get glimpses of that.
MacMillan: Wasn’t she quoted as saying he was an ugly man, or something?
Wilson: I know the story, but there are two well known made up stories about McGee, and that’s one. The other is that there’s only room for one drunkard in this cabinet and I’m not acquitting. Which is a lovely story, and it may be true, but there’s no evidence that Macdonald ever said that, and there’s no evidence that Mary McGee ever said that either, so I don’t know. With absent evidence, skepticism rules here. Although, if you want a good story, they fit well.
Wilson: I think he was not only the youngest, most intellectually gifted Father of Confederation, he wrote a dozen books, he wrote hundreds of poems, which aren’t very good by contemporary standards, probably, but which were very popular in his day.
He was a brilliant orator and regarded as one of the greatest orators in the English-speaking world, and he has a compelling personality. One person wrote that you always knew where McGee was in the room because that’s where people where laughing.
But as Wilson notes, D’Arcy McGee was not a seamlessly perfect figure. In addition to being a heavy drinker, which Wilson suspects was difficult on his wife, Mary and his children, he was also a passionate man, for better or worse.
Wilson: I do think he struggled between his passions and his reason. There are stories of him staying late into the night of houses where he was put up, having a heated political arguments with his hosts, and thumping his fists on the table and going at it until seven or eight in the morning, grabbing a couple of hours of sleep and then moving on to the next day’s work.
Check out PART 2 to learn where Dr. Wilson drew from to piece together Thomas D’Arcy McGee’s personality. In Part 2 you will also find out what Wilson thinks about SALON Theatre and the collision of history and art.
Check out Part 2 HERE
Interview by Jesse MacMillan
Transcribed by Allison Ferry
Blog written by Allison Ferry
On July 5, SALON had the pleasure of welcoming guest host Jane Hilderman of Samara Canada to In Sir John A’s Footsteps. While she was here, SALON’s, Pamela Simpson sat down with Jane to ask a few questions about Samara, Canadian politics, and what it means to be a good citizen. In Part 1 of this interview, Jane talks about the good work Samara does to support and promote everyday political engagement.
You can read Part 1: HERE
In Part 2 of this interview, we’ll get a bit more philosophical, as Jane shares her ideas about political engagement in youth, and how SALON Theatre, as an arts organization, might help to encouraging political engagement.
Jane started by dispelling a very common myth about youth and politics.
Pamela: What factors do you think play a role in encouraging youth to be interested in politics? (And how are you going to do it)
Jane: One thing I like to emphasize is people think youth are apathetic, and that is a myth, youth care a great deal. If you ask them what they care about its issues that everyone cares about, environment, jobs, the future. Let’s not assume the youth are disengaged.
So why isn’t politics the sphere for making a change?
We can look at duties, fine, but I want to see a growing believe that politics is something we don’t want to give up control of. Talking to young people you see a trend where they want to start a business or a non-profit as more important avenues for change.
Those are important ways to participate, but it still doesn’t mean you’ll have the governance you need. So how do you bridge that gap? They look at the system and think it’s too dysfunctional.
The question of how to fix a broken system is a very large question. Certainly it’s a question with many layers. However, after years of working for Samara, Jane knows some key places to start.
Jane: What we know is effective is getting people when their young, so early exposure to politics. We know through our research that face-to-face interaction is key for young people to share ideas with each other and we want to provide these outlets.
So what’s going to get a more virtuous circle going on?
We want to create a culture that celebrates politics a little bit more by creating a celebration of Canadian history that includes important insights to how we got to where we are today. It’s about changing culture, and that takes time. I think people want a different story, a more positive story about our current system.
It’s not everyday that you get someone so intelligent to comment on your work, and with opening day only 48 hours behind us, we couldn’t wait to hear Jane’s feedback on In Sir John A’s Footsteps. When we asked what her favourite part of the show, we were happy to hear she had a good time.
Jane: It was fun being part of the show, I’m not an actor but I love the arts and I love going to live theatre whenever possible. There’s something about being able to share a little bit in a live production that made it so special!
Finally, Pamela asked the most important question of all (well, the SALON Team thought it was pretty important, anyway).
Pamela: How do you think artists, like SALON, can play a role in helping to encourage strong citizenship?
Jane: Medium is the message. You do have to pay attention to the medium, Samara tries to pay attention to the online sphere but the arts is something a lot of young people gravitate to and that’s something to think about. Not just familiar faces like celebrities, but using mediums that can reframe people’s thoughts on politics.
Art is so good at changing the perspective because its creative and playful and it invites you to think about things entirely different. SALON grants people the opportunity to reframe history and take something kind of boring like old men sitting around and drinking too much, creating this country, and turning it into a spectacle.
At the beginning, Canada was very tenuous, it was not a for sure thing, it was stitching together so many groups, which tells us a bit of who we are today. We still have those stitched together places and art lets you be mindful and future looking as well.
The arts prompt people to ask questions and look to where they’re going.
We couldn’t agree more. Making connections between Canada’s past, especially the country’s political past, is part of what we at SALON hope inspires people to think more about how we keep the strongest aspects of Canada’s governance alive, while pulling out what no longer fits.
We are grateful to the inspirational and wise Jane Hilderman for her visit. With an election only months away, she was the perfect person to get this season rolling. Stay tuned for more interviews with all of our guest hosts.
For more information about Samara Canada, visit www.samaracanada.com
Interview and Transcription by Pamela Simpson
Blog written by Allison Ferry